Theater in WNY / Buffalo theater
Past, present, and future
Pictured: Vintage program books and other ephemera from the collection of Anthony Chase document Buffalo’s historic theater scene.
Buffalo boasts an active and diverse theater community. This wasn’t always so. Yes, we were a big town on the vaudeville, burlesque, and touring circuits of the early twentieth century, but homegrown professional theater didn’t really take off until the 1980s.
When I arrived in Buffalo in 1981, the theater scene was in major transition. Studio Arena Theatre artistic director Neal Du Brock had just been fired by his board of directors, who were fed up with his chaotic fiscal management and general uncontrollability. Du Brock had originally been hired to helm the community-based Studio Theatre, founded in the 1920s, because of his local theater activity using local actors. Under his leadership, the theater at 710 Main Street became Studio Arena, an Equity member of the national League of Resident Theatres (LORT). In its golden age, Studio Arena regularly featured major stars, staged world premieres, and sent shows to Broadway; however, the use of local actors became infrequent. After Du Brock was fired, local actors found that they were personae non grata at a theater they had helped establish. Not wanted, they went elsewhere.
The impulse of these artists to continue creating theater—combined with cheap rents in an economically depressed city, an expanding dinner theater phenomenon, and local colleges and universities turning out theater majors by the score--propelled Buffalo’s theater scene to a new trajectory. The theater boom that began in the 1970s and ’80s continues to this day, but it has evolved.
Many of the first wave of theaters to open in the theater district in the late 1970s and ’80s are gone: the Playhouse, opened by Irv Weinstein, with Bryna and Joe Weiss, was once where Shea’s Bistro and Bar are today; the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre was in a number of spaces including the Buffalo Chophouse building; and the Cabaret, which was on Main Street and then in the D’Arcy McGee space on Franklin.
The days of cheap downtown rent are also over. Today, the theater district is far too expensive for a fledgling theater, and building owners often have greater ambitions for their properties. In the wake of this shift in the real estate market, Road Less Traveled Productions is moving—again. Second Generation Theatre, which had intended to renovate Shea’s Seneca in South Buffalo, will, instead, rent the Smith Theatre from Shea’s. After multiple moves, Buffalo United Artists is sharing space in the Alleyway theater complex, which enjoys a long-term lease in the former Greyhound Bus terminal. Ujima Theatre is moving into School 77, while American Repertory Theater of Western New York is moving into the old Ujima space on Elmwood Avenue, and also using the Philip Sheridan building in Tonawanda. After the building that houses the Irish Classical Theatre changed ownership, the company was lucky to negotiate an attractive new lease for its Andrews Theatre. Torn Space Theater made its reputation on rediscovered spaces—the Central Terminal, the Dnipro Ukrainian Cultural Center, the grain elevators—but has put major investment into its permanent home in the Adam Mickiewicz Library & Dramatic Circle on the struggling East Side.
To many people in the region, Buffalo theater means Shea’s, where you can see big name tours with high production values. Hamilton anyone? Shea’s has the largest audience, by far, with thousands of subscribers for its Broadway series, but it does not present local productions. Today, at any given moment, between twenty and thirty theaters in Buffalo consider themselves, to some degree, professional. Pay for artists can be widely divergent, ranging from full Equity contracts with benefits to travel money—or less.
While we do seem to have a lot of theaters serving the same white, upper middle class audience—including the devoted older white women that we used to call “matinee ladies” or “the blue-hair crowd” before we realized they were the bread and butter and deserved more respect—we also have an Irish theater, a Jewish theater, a children’s theater, a feminist theater, a Latinx theater, and a gay theater. We have Paul Robeson Theatre, focused on the African American experience. We have an outdoor summer Shakespeare theater and musical theaters. We have an avant-garde theater. The need to tell our stories, to bond with other people with empathy and in a spirit of community is a universal part of the human condition. To date, no Burmese, Somali, Dominican, or Yemini theater has emerged, as might have happened back in the days of vaudeville, when every ethnic group would find itself reflected on the American stage.
However, contemporary plays are more likely to require racially diverse casts than plays of twenty years ago. On stage, most theaters are making efforts to reflect the diversity of our city and of our nation. This, too, has changed since the days of Studio Arena, which would typically feature one obligatory “black show” per season, often presented in February. Those days are mercifully over, but the new diversity presents challenges.
There is greater demand for actors of color, and an acting pool that hasn’t yet caught up with the demand. The Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, for instance, finds that actors on whom they could formerly depend might not be available, as they’re being offered work across a range of theaters, as well as in commercials and in films. Theaters have proved willing, if begrudgingly, to juggle schedules for African American and Latinx performers who double-book, with performance dates for one production overlapping rehearsal dates for the next.
With so many theaters, audiences can cherry-pick their perfect season. The theater mantra of a generation ago, which urged audiences to “Subscribe Now!” has been supplanted by efforts to build modest subscription bases of devoted followers, then fill in with as many single ticket sales as possible.
The number of theaters that can survive this is a simple matter of market forces. This is show business; it is useful to remember that show business is competitive. Yes, our theaters comprise a community but, often, this is a community of competitors.
In the old days, Studio Arena, feeling the threat of the professional theater scene growing around them, would put a hold on every new title coming out of New York—not necessarily to produce it, but to obstruct other theaters’ access. Studio was even known to have publishers revoke rights from small theaters after contracts were signed. With Studio Arena gone, this situation eased considerably, but theaters now find they are competing with each other. Theaters serving similar audiences often find that they have gravitated toward the same playwrights, and sometimes the same scripts. It is not unusual for a Buffalo theater to call a publisher for rights to a script, only to be told “another Buffalo theater has a hold on it.” Then the guessing game begins.
For audiences, this is, arguably, not a bad situation—there are certainly more fresh-from-New York scripts on our stages than ever before—but it does point to the need for further change in our ever-evolving theater scene. Logically, the question periodically pops up as to whether there might be too many theaters. In my view, until every member of the community is being served, we do not yet have enough.